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CTA takes steps to help ensure free New Years Eve service won’t be terrible again this year

The grassroots transit advocacy group Commuters Take Action says they're "cautiously optimistic" about the CTA's NYE plan.

3:38 PM CST on December 29, 2023

The Washington-Wabash ‘L’ station. Photo: John Greenfield

This post is sponsored by Boulevard Bikes.

One thing that's great about living in Chicagoland is that if you're working or going out on the town on New Year's Eve, the CTA, Metra, and Pace all offer free rides. (Granted, while drinking alcohol is usually permitted on Metra, it will be banned after 7 PM on NYE, so if you want to consume booze on commuter rail this Sunday, be sure to stick with day drinking.)

Of course, the elephant in the room is that last year's free CTA New Year's service was ridiculously bad due to due to staffing shortages. Lots of Chicagoans on complained on social media about frustratingly long service delays that messed up their holiday plans.

Grassroots advocacy group Commuters Take Action (CTAction) analyzed CTA data and found the griping commuters had valid complaints. On December 31 of last year, only 44 percent of scheduled Blue Line runs actually showed up. The next day that number dropped to a mere 43 percent. That was a lot lower than in the previous  five days: December 27 (67 percent), December 28 (70 percent), December 29 (69 percent), December 30 (60 percent.)

Asked for the reasons for the absurdly terrible service last year, a CTA spokesperson told Streetsblog at the time, "A higher-than-usual number of unplanned absences [compared to recent months] prevented CTA from providing all the service we had hoped, leading to some longer-than-scheduled intervals between trains on some lines, including the Red and Blue Lines. CTA worked to provide as much service as possible on both trains and buses."

As such, is there any reason to believe things will be any better this New Year's Eve? Or should workers and revelers plan on alternative modes instead of taking advantage of the free fares, which are once again subsidized by Miller Lite? (CTA issues aside, kudos to that company for making an effort to help prevent drunk driving.)

Streetsblog asked CTAction for their POV on this issue earlier this week. "As far as I know, there have been no policy changes since last years holidays that are available publicly," said Brandon McFadden, one of the group's data whizzes. "Thanksgiving [2023] was pretty brutal though, with the first sub-70 percent day all year. 

On the bright side, McFadden said, "Christmas Day was not as bad this year compared to last though. I’m cautiously optimistic that things will be better [for NYE] this year."

Interestingly, the response I eventually got from the CTA, on whether it had a game plan for avoiding NYE labor shortages, was less cheerful. "We unfortunately have no way of predicting when an employee will call in sick, which was the leading factor impacting rail services last New Year’s Eve," said a spokesperson via email.

"Importantly though, CTA is making every effort to provide our riders with as much service as possible this holiday weekend," they added. Here is the list they provided, in the CTA's language. These sound like reasonable approaches to me.

  • Scheduling added trips for bus routes serving Navy Pier, as well as the most heavily traveled rail lines – Red, Blue and Brown
  • Issuing reminders to personnel of the importance of reporting for their scheduled shifts (and on-time)
  • Promoting over-time pay opportunities
  • Actively recruiting eligible personnel to take on additional shifts for the New Year’s holiday

"It should be noted that the latest class of 15 rail operators have recently completed training and have since been strategically allocated to the terminals where they are needed most," the spokesperson said.

I shared the CTA's New Year's Eve plan with CTAction's McFadden, and he also seemed to think it was pretty good. But he said the transit agency should be transparent if any problems arise. "We recognize that staffing levels can change due to call-ins, and if this winds up being the case we ask that CTA keep riders updated through its website and social media about the service they can expect."

Well there you have it, Streetsblog readers. It appears that you should have a better experience this year than last if you use the CTA as your designated driver. So stay safe and have fun on New Year's Eve; use an 'L' train or bus to get home instead of an Uber; and keep it real in 2024.

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